Are Pentecostals the Ecumenical Future? Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 29 January 2008 09:58
John Allen posted an intriguing and important piece yesterday:

If Demography is Destiny, Pentecostals are the Ecumenical Future.

It is encouraging to see that the Church is starting to recognize this newly emerging reality and take some action.

According to Allen:

Fr. Juan Usma Gomez of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican official responsible for Catholic/Pentecostal relations, published a piece in the January 27 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, reporting two new developments that have not as yet garnered wide attention:

• The Joint International Commission for Catholic–Pentecostal Dialogue will shortly publish a new document: On Becoming A Christian: Insights from Scripture and the Patristic Writings. With Some Contemporary Reflections. Usma Gomez called the document a “true novelty,” because it’s the first time Catholics and Pentecostals have jointly studied the Fathers of the Church.

Fantastic. The Fathers are filled with references to charisms, the miraculous, and the work of the Holy Spirit. If any readers would like to learn more on the subject, be sure and check out this excellent, scholarly but accessible work: Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit.


After several years of preparation, for the first time the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity will hold “preliminary conversations” this April with leaders of various non-denominational Pentecostal movements, which could lead to the creation of a formal dialogue. Given that the majority of Pentecostals are now thought to belong to independent and unaffiliated grassroots movements, this means that for the first time the Vatican is opening a channel of communication with that sector of the Christian world where, in many respects, “the action is.”

Again, an extremely timely move. The dilemma is how to do ecumenical dialogue with Christians who are not centrally organized and many of whom consciously reject the classic denominational structures? This will not be dialogue as we have been used to it: scholarly and focused around historic creeds and theological debates.

For those of you who would like to know more about post-denominational pentecostalized Christianity, check out my 11 part post: The Challenge of Independent Christianity. As I noted then:

Dr. David Barrett is the foremost expert in the world on the status of global Christianity and editor of the massive 2001 edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford University Press. He divides the contemporary Christian world into six ecclesial traditions or what he calls “Christian megablocs”. Five of these blocs are familiar historic groups: Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and what Barrett calls “Marginal Christians”; a bloc that would include groups like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The sixth bloc is a 20th century phenomena that goes by the name of “post-denominationalist Independent”. This new kid on the block is already a major player. As of mid-2007, Barrett estimates that Independent Christians number 437.7 million, or roughly 20% of all the Christians in the world. (The updated mid-2007 figures that I will be quoting are available online at Status of Global Mission, 2007 in the Context of the 20th and 21st Centuries (hereafter SGM), If Barrett’s figures are close enough for government work, Independent Christianity is second in size only to Roman Catholicism. It is larger than all historic Protestant groups (excluding Anglicanism) combined, twice the size of Orthodoxy, and over five times larger than the entire Anglican communion.

Independent Christianity is growing faster than Islam. Independents constituted only 1.4% of world Christianity in 1900. By 2050, Barrett estimates they will make up nearly 25% of all Christians and 8.5% of the world’s population. In 2007, the Catholic Church showed a minimal growth rate of 1.14%, while Islam’s annual growth was 1.81%. Independent Christianity led the way with an annual growth rate of 2.12 % - nearly double that of Catholicism. (SGM)

None of this is surprising in light of Independent Christians’ passionate commitment to proclaiming Christ – to the baptized and non-baptized alike. As a group, Independents are what Barrett calls “Great Commission” Christians. That is, they hold that mandate of Christ to evangelize, baptize, and disciple all nations is still valid and is the central mission of the Church. (According to the SGM, 703 million or 32% of all Christians in 2007 were “Great Commission Christians”.). The five nations with the largest numbers of Independents in 2005 are China, the United States, India, Nigeria, and Brazil. According to Barrett, 52% of Asian Christians, 30% of North American Christians, 22% of African Christians, and 7.3% of Latin Christians are part of the Independent movement.

In light of its global size and dynamism, you would think that “Independent” Christianity would register on the Catholic ecclesial radar. One reason it does not is that this post-denominational Christianity has only been recognized as a unique movement in the past 20 years. It is so new that it can be easily dismissed by the historically-minded as yet another fly-by-night “sect”. Granted that the word “church” has a very specific meaning in Catholic thought, this does not mean that “sect” is an adequate label for Christian communities who do not qualify as churches. This word tells the listener nothing and gives the strong impression that the group in question is too marginal to be taken seriously. In any case, the term “sect” is manifestly inadequate to describe a movement that is 437 million strong.

A second reason we may overlook Independent Christianity is that it is a development from within evangelicalism that intentionally leaves historic Protestant practice far behind. They are therefore not an obvious partner for the sort of ecumenical dialogue we are familiar with that engages traditional Protestant denominations.

A third reason is that the Independent movement is not structured in standard ways. Most Independent Christians are part of loosely affiliated “apostolic networks” held together by personal relationships, a common charismatic spirituality, and a joint commitment to proclaiming Christ. Barrett estimates that there were about 22,000 such networks or para-denominations in existence in 2000 involving 1.7 million congregations.

The fourth and most critical reason is that Independent Christianity is nearly devoid of and completely uninterested in the marks of the Church that are so central to Catholic ecclesiology: historic, apostolic, creedal, and sacramental. The movement is almost a perfect antitype; it is a-historical, anti-hierarchical, anti-intellectual, and non-sacramental. It is also massively “pentecostalized” in spirituality and ecclesiology.

The Vatican is focusing on the positive per John Allen:

"Usma Gomez also lists several contributions which he believes the rise of Pentecostalism has bestowed upon contemporary Christianity:
• Rediscovery of the central role of the Holy Spirit;
• The fact that personal conversion to Jesus Christ is requested in an explicit and continuing manner throughout the life of every single Christian;
• The emphasis placed upon prayer, and the power of prayer;
• Rediscovery of charisms and spiritual gifts as realities, effective and necessary, in the life of every believer.

At the same time, Usma Gomez also cites some negatives associated with Pentecostalism, above all that some Pentecostals “underline their experience and their spirituality as the only one directly produced by God himself,” and thus “they’re not disposed to recognize the same importance or the same role to other Christian experiences.”

Of course, intentional discipleship, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the importance of charisms in the life of every believer is not new to Catholicism at all. Just read St. Paul or St. Cyril of Jerusalem's last two Catechetical Lectures or search for the word "charism" in the Vatican II documents and recent magisterial teaching. Even more intriguing is the insistence in papal teaching that recognizing, calling forth, honoring, discerning, and and coordinating the charisms of the baptized is an essential part of the priestly office, of governance.

Yet, almost no clergy are formed to do so. Indeed, practically none of the clergy that I have worked with so far have even heard that they are supposed to although the documents lay it out very clearly:

As both Fr. Mike and I have pointed out before on this blog:

Priests are also called to “recognize”, uncover with faith, acknowledge with joy, foster with diligence, know, appreciate, judge and discern, coordinate, put to good use, and have heartfelt esteem for the charisms of the laity (Lumen Gentium, 30; Presbyterorum Ordinis, 9; Pastores Dabo Vobis 40, 74, Christifideles Laici, 32)

Which makes our jaunt to St. Mary's seminary in Houston this week all the more timely and significant.